It’s the early morning of May 21st, 1916 in northern France, two years into World War I.
British Lieutenant-General Henry Wilson lays on his back in a trench and stares up at the beautiful morning sky. As he watches dawn break, Wilson turns to another soldier to remark on how perfect the day is.
But just as he starts to speak… a loud blast interrupts him.
Wilson bolts upright as explosions tear up the ground around him, destroying parts of the trench and killing several of his infantrymen.
He peers out toward the high, grassy ridge where the enemy is stationed. But the air is so thick with dirt and dust that Wilson struggles to see the Germans at all.
Wilson begins to shout orders to his men, but coughs interrupt him as tear gas floods his lungs.
Wilson ducks down and scrambles for his gas mask, as the German artillery barrage reaches a crescendo, explosions rip through the British trenches, artillery, and infantrymen.
And then for a brief moment… all goes eerily quiet. The dust begins to settle and the haze begins to clear.
Wilson peeks his head above the rim of the trench and sees German infantry charging toward the British lines.
Wilson’s goal is to take the Vimy Ridge back from the Germans. But with the British trenches ravaged, his artillery destroyed, and infantry crippled, there is nothing for Wilson to do but fall back.
The “Vimy Ridge” is a piece of strategically important high ground in Northern France held by the Germans. And on the morning of May 21st, while Wilson and his men were resting, these Germans launched a surprise offensive. 2,475 British soldiers were wounded or killed in the attack.
Wilson's failure to take Vimy Ridge was not the first. For the past two years, Allied attempts to conquer the Ridge consistently came up short. But the British, and their French allies, are persistent.
Over the next year, they will launch many more incursions, all unsuccessful. By next April, as many as 150,000 French and British soldiers will have fallen trying to recapture Vimy Ridge.
Still, the Allies will not give up. And on April 9th, 1917, the Ridge will once again become the site of a fierce battle. But this time, the tides will turn, the Allies will be victorious on April 12th, 1917.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 12th, 1917: The Battle of Vimy Ridge.
Act One: George joins the fight
It’s October 14th, 1916 in the town of Vernon in British Columbia, Canada.
George McLean joins a line of young men standing outside the town’s recruitment office, waiting to enlist in a war whose current scale few predicted.
At the start of this great war, German Emperor Wilhelm II promised his departing troops that they would return before the autumn leaves fell, a statement echoed by many governments. But, the Emperor's optimism seems foolish now. Far from a quick conflict, the war that started with the political assassination of an Austrian Archduke is turning into the largest conflict the world has ever seen, and no end is in sight.
When Great Britain declared war, Canada, a British dominion, automatically entered the conflict too. Though enlistment remains voluntary in Canada, the growing death toll in Europe has ramped up recruitment efforts, sparking the active enlistment of Indigenous soldiers like George McLean, a member of the Okanagan nation.
The Canadian army was initially reluctant to recruit Indigenous soldiers, believing that the “Germans might refuse to extend them the privileges of civilized warfare.” But the demand for soldiers has grown too high. And though many Indigenous men feel mixed emotions about contributing to the war, in the end, every single eligible Okanagan man aged 20-35 will enlist.
But, today, George stands apart from the rest of the potential recruits. He assesses the other men in line. Most are taller than him, and all seem younger – a new development since the last time George enlisted. Back then, George was 25, enlisting to fight for the British Empire in South Africa’s Second Boer War.
Now, George looks at his reflection in the window and sees a slim, five-foot-seven 41 years old, barely 150 pounds. George knows he doesn’t make the most imposing soldier. But he was accepted last time and gained combat experience fighting in South Africa. But that was a long time ago.
And as George inches his way closer to the entrance of the recruitment office, he begins to imagine what war will be like this time around.
It’s December 7th, 1916 on a ship in the English Channel, two months after George left Canada.
Aboard the ship’s deck, George looks out at the horizon. He makes out the rugged French coastline in the distance.
Over the past two years, World War One has settled into a stalemate, as both sides fight a war of attrition on the ground, trench by trench. For the past couple of years, the Germans have stubbornly maintained their grip on the defenses along the Western Front, but the Allies are about to launch a widespread offensive against the Germans that they hope will turn the tide of war. That’s why George is here. He and his Canadian brothers-in-arms have been called to the front to help take a strategically important escarpment called Vimy Ridge.
The ridge is an important observation point for the Germans with a commanding view of the area. And for years, the Germans have fortified their defenses on the ridge and clung on to control, but Britain’s military leaders hope that the Canadian Army might find success where French and British soldiers have failed. George hopes they’re right.
Though many of his fellow soldiers are in high spirits, as George stands on the ship’s deck, he’s nervous. He has not seen combat since he was a much younger man, and he prays his age doesn’t betray him. As George looks out at the French coastline drawing near and near, he tries to savor what he knows are the final moments of calm before the great storm of battle.
Soon, George arrives near Vimy Ridge and begins the last leg of his training. From there, the Canadian Corps will plan their attack, a spring offensive aimed at gaining control of the ridge that's been so elusive. In short order, the Canadian soldiers will get to work, raiding trenches to gather intelligence on enemy defenses, building extensive tunnel systems, and improving transportation systems to ease the movement of men and supplies. And in a few months' time, this Canadian Corps will be ready to launch their attack, and George and his fellow soldiers will put their training into action.
Act Two: Victory at Vimy Ridge
It’s April 9th, 1917 at Vimy Ridge, four months after George arrived in France.
On a cold, snowy, and windy morning, fifteen thousand Canadian soldiers sit silently in their trenches. On the left flank of the Canadian front line, George McLean waits for final signal to attack.
Today is the first morning of what will come to be known as The Battle of Vimy Ridge. For the past two weeks, the Canadians have bombarded the German soldiers, forcing them inside their dugouts, where they don’t have ready access to food and supplies. The ridge has become riddled with craters and bodies, the result of a bombardment so intense, the Germans will refer to the experience as “the week of suffering.” And now today, for the first time ever, all Canadian divisions have assembled as a united force to capture the ridge. It’s a moment of intense camaraderie for George and many other soldiers who have spent months preparing for this day.
George looks around at his fellow soldiers as they wait in anticipation for the attack to begin. George hears the sound of Canadian artillery sounding off once again. He looks up to see the explosions of shells and mortars moving toward the Germans, creating a curtain of fire.
And when the barrage begins to lift, George knows it’s nearly time for the infantry to move. Following the orders of his commander, George fixes his bayonets, climbs out of the trench, and runs.
As George cuts his way through the devastation of the No Man’s Land that separates the two sides, he trudges through a cratered mess of mud and human bones. He approaches the German lines, as a flurry of snow blows toward the German soldiers. George speeds up his advance, taking advantage of the Germans’ obscured vision.
And soon, George is locked in fierce, hand-to-hand combat. Behind him, stretcher-bearers search for the wounded, as machine guns pepper the battlefield.
The fighting lasts for hours. But, by the afternoon, the Canadian soldiers advance far enough to capture most of the Ridge, all but the highest, most heavily-defended area. Despite the day’s success, George and his fellow troops are struck by a sense of despair as they realize the extent of their own losses.
April 9th, 1917 will go down as the bloodiest day in Canadian military history. But, it won’t be in vain.
Two days later, on April 11th, 1917, George looks out at the scene before him. Wounded men lay sprawled across the mud, some still and silent, others screaming in pain. Stretcher-bearers swarm the field, but they can't keep up with the astounding number of casualties. The stench of rotting bodies permeates the entire field.
The scene is apocalyptic, but George knows the end might finally be in sight. Yesterday, the Canadian soldiers made a major step toward victory, capturing the highest and most heavily-defended hill on Vimy Ridge. The only thing still not left in the Canadians' possession is the hill at the northernmost tip of the ridge dubbed the “Pimple”.
As George and the rest of the Canadians begin to prepare to take this last hill, he realizes the danger he's in. This is the German's last stand. And so far, they have been ruthlessly reluctant to give even an inch.
As George charges into the fight, he stumbles upon a dugout filled with German soldiers. He reaches for a grenade and tosses it into the trench. Then he throws in another and another until he has only one left. Just before he pulls the pin of his last grenade, a German sergeant raises his hands in the air and shouts for George to stop.
German climbs out, staggers toward him, and hands George his weapon in surrender. Soon, the rest of the German soldiers follow suit and come out with their hands in the air.
George begins to march these 19 German troops back to Canadian lines, using the German sergeant’s own gun to cover them. But, as they walk, a German sniper opens fire. George winces in pain as a bullet, and then quickly after, a second, strike his left arm. Seizing the moment, several of the German troops rush to disarm him. But George manages to fight them off, force them back, and march them to Canadian lines.
By nightfall the following day, April 12th, 1917, the four-day battle finally comes to an end, putting Vimy Ridge under Allied control. In total, the German army will suffer an estimated 20,000 casualties. 4,000 of their troops will be taken prisoner.
The triumph will bring Canada out of the shadow of the British Empire. Fifty years later, one Canadian officer will remark that: In the moment of victory at Vimy Ridge, he felt he “witnessed the birth of a nation.” And though the war will continue for another year and a half, the capture of the Ridge on April 12th, 1917 will remain a defining victory for the allies and the Canadian Army; a revered event that will be honored for decades to come.
Act Three: Remembering Vimy Ridge
It’s April 9th, 2017 at Vimy Ridge, exactly 100 years after the Battle began.
At the top of the ridge, David Johnston, Canada’s Governor General, looks up at a pair of tall limestone pillars adorned with statues and the names of fallen soldiers. This memorial stands on the ridge’s highest hill, one of the last areas to be captured by the Canadian soldiers.
Five years after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, the French government ceded the ridge to Canada in perpetuity for their contribution to the triumph against German defenses. Since 1936, this Vimy Memorial has stood as a reminder of the sacrifice and success of the Canadian soldiers, the names etched into it signifying the 11,285 Canadian killed in France with no known graves. Today, Canadian Governor General Johnston, and many others, gather to honor these men.
After a salute of cannon fire, Johnston takes his place at the podium and begins his speech:
"Behind me, extending high into the sky above, behold the towering twin pylons of the Vimy Monument. See how they soar so boldly. Those spires stand for peace and for freedom.
Today, one hundred years later, we honor their eternal sacrifice. We mourn their loss. And we remember them. We remember their loved ones back home, bereft in the absence of sons, grandsons, husbands, fathers, friends. And we mourn the generations of Canadians unborn because of their loss."
Johnston finishes with a reminder: now, a century later, there are no remaining veterans of World War One; it will be up to future generations to breathe life into these past events by telling the stories of the brave soldiers who fought and died at Vimy Ridge and across the world.
In the end, the victory came at a heavy cost. Over 3,000 Canadians were killed and another 7,000 wounded, a toll so large that, in a matter of weeks, the Canadian government had to end their policy of voluntary enlistment and imposed conscription.
Upon his return home, George McLean received a rare Distinguished Conduct Medal for his heroism. But for most Indigenous troops, the benefits promised to them proved elusive. The Soldier Settlement Act was created to give land to returning soldiers, much of the land was confiscated from Indian territories, dashing the hopes of many Indigenous soldiers that they might be returning to a better life.
Ultimately, the Battle of Vimy Ridge will be described both as a great victory and a great loss, its consequences and its influence on Canadian identity extending far beyond its final conclusion on April 12th, 1917.
Next on History Daily. April 13th, 1997. Tiger Woods makes history when he wins the Masters Tournament by 12 strokes, marking Woods’ first major championship victory and the start of his unprecedented career.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Alexandra Currie-Buckner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.